WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

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1 Mar 2024 | Commentary

Constitutional Reform Proposals in Mexico: Risks to Human Rights

On February 5, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador sent a package of 20 legislative proposals to the Mexican Congress, including 18 constitutional reform bills. The package covers a wide range of issues, from the rights of indigenous and Afro-Mexican communities to pensions and the energy sector, among others.

Although some of the proposals seek to advance the rights of different communities or address other social demands, others would redesign or eliminate government institutions, in many cases with the aim of reducing democratic checks and balances. Among the proposals for institutional restructuring, López Obrador reintroduces aspects of his previous “Plan B” electoral reforms, among other proposed changes to the political-electoral system. He seeks as well to eliminate a series of autonomous oversight and regulatory bodies, including the National Institute for Transparency, Access to Information, and Protection of Personal Data (known as INAI).

López Obrador also proposes a series of security and justice reforms that would weaken separation of powers, access to justice, and the protection of human rights. Below, we highlight three key areas of concern.

  • Militarization

López Obrador proposes reforming the Constitution to define the National Guard as one of the armed forces, attaching it to the Ministry of Defense (Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional, SEDENA). This is his second attempt to formalize SEDENA’s control over the National Guard, after Mexico’s Supreme Court (Suprema Corte de Justicia de la Nación, SCJN) struck down a similar legislative reform in 2023.

The proposed reform would also place the National Guard’s personnel under military jurisdiction, a practice that has led to opacity and impunity in cases of military abuses. In addition to the militarization of the National Guard, the new reform would not close the door to the continued, direct participation of the army, navy, and air force in policing tasks.

This reform would thus ‘constitutionalize’ the militarization of domestic security tasks in Mexico, including a range of tasks related to the investigation of crimes. This proposal comes despite the counterproductive effects of the military model, many of which we discuss in this 2023 report.

The reconfiguration of the armed forces’ role would go far beyond security. Currently, Article 129 of the Constitution establishes that, in times of peace, the armed forces can only perform functions that have an “exact connection to military discipline.” López Obrador proposes reforming this article to allow the participation of military authorities in any function foreseen in the Constitution and the law, which would allow for the militarization of any government task. López Obrador’s six-year term is already characterized by the militarization of a long list of civilian functions.

  • Penal populism and weakening of the judiciary

López Obrador constantly states that the judicial branch is corrupt and elitist, and attacks judges for releasing detainees. He now proposes that judicial authorities, including Supreme Court justices, be elected by popular vote as a supposed measure against corruption and unethical practices.

There is no reason to believe that electing judges would achieve these ends. On the contrary, the reform would weaken the judiciary as a democratic counterweight and encourage penal populism.

Under Mexican and international norms, a detained person has the right to be released if their detention was illegal or if authorities cannot justify the charges against them; this is a fundamental mechanism to protect people’s rights and to require authorities to conduct credible, evidence-based investigations. Despite the foregoing, López Obrador’s discourse projects the message that the release of detainees is itself the problem, and that the population has to correct this problem by electing judges. This creates strong incentives for candidates and elected judges to validate illegal detentions or promise not to release people, a major risk in a country with a long history of arbitrary detentions.

In addition, López Obrador proposes further expanding the list of crimes that are subject to mandatory pretrial detention. This would reduce even more the power of judicial authorities to determine whether it is necessary to imprison those accused of a crime. We recall that mandatory pretrial detention is a human rights violation that undermines the functioning of the adversarial criminal justice system. In fact, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has ordered Mexico to eliminate this practice.

In short, the reforms would deepen a model in which ‘success’ is measured by the number of people deprived of their liberty rather than by access to truth and justice. Those who would suffer the most human rights violations in this scenario would be, as always, people living in poverty and members of historically marginalized groups.

  • Drug policy: prohibition and prison

Finally, the reforms propose constitutionally prohibiting activities related to electronic cigarettes, vaping, and illicit synthetic drugs. One of the bills would establish mandatory pretrial detention for “narcomenudeo“—a legal term that comprises not only drug distribution but also possession—and crimes related to synthetic drugs.

While legislation already prohibits a wide range of drug-related activities and mandates pretrial detention for some of them, the reforms seek to broaden this framework through the Constitution. Such an approach would further hinder access to health services, treatment, and other harm reduction measures.

What comes next?

López Obrador does not currently have the legislative majority needed to reform the Constitution without opposition votes. Rather, he presented the reform bills at a moment when they will captivate attention and become an anchoring topic of debate for media, political actors, and the public during election season.

However, if MORENA (the president’s political party) wins a qualified majority in Congress in the upcoming June 2 elections, the reforms presented on February 5 could be approved and become part of Mexico’s Constitution, with long-term consequences.